Paul S. Gifford
THE TREE OF HOPE
I shall never forget that particular Friday afternoon in April 1976. I was just a tender and impressionable eleven years old that was my final year at Whitecrest primary school. It is an enchanted age being eleven, just beginning the haphazard evolution into adulthood, but yet still containing enough innocence and make-believe that is so sacred to childhoods.
Our middle class neighborhood, Great Barr, underwent a major boom in the mid 1960’s, resulting in scores of new homes being built. These homes attracted many young parents and those who were planning children to move on in. The result of all this was that in a school of about two-hundred, a hefty sixty of us were at that same tender age as myself. We were equally divided with two teachers – Mr. Right’s and Mr. Powel’s – The latter being my teacher.
At this point in my life, family consisted of merely me and my father as my older siblings had left home to venture on bravely into the maddening world and my mother having left her marriage a few years earlier. This had made me self-reliant; I was a very capable eleven-year-old boy.
On this particular day, it was going to be a special day. As today was the day the trees arrived. You see, it had been decided by the powers that be that the outside path from the curb to the actual school building needed a little pizzazz. Trees, it was unanimously decided upon, were the answer. Each classroom was going to be assigned two. This idea totally engaged my young imagination. I have always had a fondness for trees, having spent many a day in the local wood, on a grassy knoll with my head in a good book, absorbing nature’s glorious charms as I read.
The teachers concluded that a lottery styled drawing would be the only fair way to decide who would plant the tress within our class; one girl and one boy. I remember the curious excitement I felt as I nervously wrote my name on that small square piece of yellow paper, my heart was actually racing. I vividly recall my teacher smiling at me, watching my every move; I was definitely the most excited child in his classroom.
All of the names were put into two hats-one for the girls and one for the boys. It was a little after ten on that glorious Friday Spring morning and the sun was beginning to idly warm the green grass that surrounded the building, gradually removing the dew with delicate precision from each blade. I can recall with amazing clarity the birds, singing and chuckling as they gaily set about their daily tasks.
And I remember the teacher reaching into the hat-girls first.
“Julie Whitehouse.” Mr. Powell announced to a few mumbled congratulations.
“And now for the boys’ name… “With that he winked at me. Yes, he actually winked. With that his hand delved into the hat as I held my breath. A few seconds later Mr. Powel was unfolding a yellow piece of paper.
“The boy tree planter is… “
Mr. Powel paused for several agonizing moments seemingly relishing the tension he was creating and I felt myself turning pale as my young heart thumped in hopefulness.
“Paul Gifford,” he jubilantly proclaimed beaming at me.
I felt like jumping up and cheering, running around the classroom in a victory lap. I wanted to leap up and down waving my arms about with wild unleashed abandon, however I did not do any of these things, I simply said, “Thank you.”
We then were informed to form two lines at the door of the class. At the head of the girl’s line stood Julie and I was proudly at the front of the boys. I was radiant with satisfaction and the typically shy, insecure eleven year old boy was suddenly six-feet tall and overflowing with confidence.
We marched in that orderly fashion, that only English school kids can, down the hallway and out into the morning radiance. The sun appeared to be actually smiling at me so, being of a proper upbringing, I politely smiled back. It could not have been a more picturesque day, it was simply perfect. I eagerly breathed in the morning air my senses relishing in the sweet fragrance.
As we arrived at the assigned place I noticed, with interest, that several classes had already completed their task; for I noted that several slender delicate trees, about two to three feet tall, had already been neatly planted along the driveway. It was now our classes turn. I saw a hole had been dug in the appropriate place. I picked up my prize – terrified that the shaking tree within my grasp would belie my façade of confidence and with my classmates seemingly scrutinizing my every move I tenderly placed it within the fertile soil. I then picked up a well worn small wooden handed shovel and purposely, yet meticulously returned the soil. Within a few more moments my noble task was completed. I took a few steps back, as did my female counterpart Julie, and we examined our work. Then we simply returned back to the classroom, back to our English and math classes and continued on as normal. Yet on that very special of days I had accomplished something sublimely gratifying – I had planted a tree!
It was just before four o’ clock and going home time when I had a question for Mr. Powel. I dutifully raised my hand, and was told to come forward to the desk. I can’t recall the mundane question that I had asked but as I stood there chatting to my favorite teacher I could not help the compulsion to sneak a peek at the yellow piece of paper still sitting on the desk. As I read the name I gained an insight into the teacher’s perception of me.
Over the next thirty years my life took me in various directions, some wondrous and amazing, others full of sadness .When I was seventeen my father disillusioned with the bleak unemployment that was rampant in 1970’s Britain accepted a job in California. With reluctance of leaving my homeland we packed our belongings and said goodbye. Goodbye to the house I was born in, goodbye to the friends I had grown up with, goodbye to all the things I was familiar with and also, as you might suspect, had said a tearful goodbye to my tree. It had been five years now since I had planted it and just as I was it was starting to flourish; its limbs were strengthening and growing. It was strong, vibrant, and healthy yet I wondered how many winters it was going to endure and I quietly prayed to myself that it would be strong enough to survive.
Now I am forty years old I have still never forgotten my tree. I have often made it back to England over the years and I always made a point to go and visit it. I have watched it progressively grow and strengthen as the years have passed and I have shared with it my deepest fears, explained my heartfelt sadness, and reveled in my joys. My tree seemed to have become all wise, all known always loyal and constantly ready to lend a patient ear.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to once again find myself back in Great Barr along with my fantastic wife Sarah and my son, Jonathan who is eleven.
It was on our second night there that I told Jonathan that we were going to go for a hearty walk down his dad’s memory lane. My wife was tired and cared to simply relax in a long hot bath. Jonathan and I slipped our jackets on and set out into the early evening. We talked as we walked and then we talked some more. I find it hard to comprehend that I have an eleven year old son. Wasn’t it only a few short yesterdays ago that I was only just his age?
As we were on our amble we were greeted enthusiastically by a group of children.
“What school do you go to?” The bravest of the bunch cried out to my son.
He was shy, but he explained that he went to school in California.
This created a buzz amongst the eleven-year-old kids playing on the street. Within a few moments, we seemed to be surrounded by about a dozen fresh young innocent faces-all eagerly trying to figure out whom this ‘new kid is’.
I explained that I had gone to Whitecrest and was visiting the place of my birth. Sharing that I had left that school back in 1976.Their eyes glazed over as I spoke.
“Wow you are old,” a few of them mused.
It turned out that not only did those kids attend Whitecrest, so did many of their parents, acorns typically falling very close to the tree in England.
We continued our walk, after Jonathan had eagerly shaken and high-fived a dozen new friends’ hands.
As we jaunted down a hill, we came to a building.
“What’s this place?” Jonathan asked his young mind filled with curiosity.
“This is where I attended school,” I softly replied.
We walked a little quicker and in a very few moments arrived at an extraordinary sight. In front of us, towering at least sixty feet high stood my remarkable tree. It seemed strong and proud as it towered there, and I swear it seemed to acknowledge me somehow, stretching itself even taller still.
Jonathan looked up at my face, and sees a tear in his old man’s eye.
“It’s a beautiful tree dad-Is it special to you?”
As a tear started to slowly creep down my cheek I replied.
“Yes son, it is very special to me indeed.”
Part 2: An Extraordinary Succession of Coincidences
I was feeling a little glum yesterday afternoon as I arrived home and sat down at my computer. A personal matter that had been dragging on for several years was supposed to be favorable concluded that morning, however no such outcome arrived, and indeed it shall continue to drag on for several more months, perhaps years, and so will the stress accompanying it. So I had low expectations of the day, when I sullenly sat down at my desk to routinely check my email. I had made myself a strong cup of hot tea with ample sugar and milk in front of me, and sipped on it to help me relax. It has been my unfortunate life experiences that if one thing goes awry, a short cycle of other setbacks shall be destined to promptly follow. The old adage that trouble comes in threes surely seems to fit my world. Therefore you can imagine my delight, and relief, when I noted that I had received an email from commented on one of my stories, The Tree of Hope. The story basically revolves around a childhood memory of mine from 1976 involving the planting of two rows of trees along my old school driveway. The anecdote reveals just how significant that tree has been to me over the years, and that it is still there taller and prouder than ever.
The writer of this letter happened to be a present day teacher at the very same school who, astonished after doing an internet search with her young daughter, came across my modest little tale, written and typed six thousand miles away in California (Where I have called home for many years.) The charming letter further went on to explain that she had driven past those very rows of trees five days a week, for years and never for a moment considered them anything special, but now views them, and mine in particular, in an entirely new light. I re-read the email several times as I sat there, finishing my tea, and smiled. Today was going to be a wonderful day again… just as everyday should be viewed.
Despite the fact that I have lived in California for over half of my life I still have and maintained many great friendships in my native England. One of those friends I have known since I was a bespectacled blonde haired five years old, whose name, coincidentally also is Paul. (being born in England in the mid sixties there was a very good chance of being called Paul or John, (although there weren’t too many Ringos) Paul, as so many of my friends did, has chosen to live just half mile or so from the house he was born and raised in. As he refused to move further than a few minutes’ walk to her house. He is now married to a remarkable lady and has two fine young children. Here begins one of those amazing coincidences that I have inferred as his wife, Toni, now works at Whitecrest primary school.
Now, naturally the first thing I did after receiving the email was forward it to her husband and a few minutes ago I received my reply. Toni, as is her daily habit, walked home for her lunch. She was met at the front door by her grinning husband who eagerly informed her of the peculiar turn of events. Apparently she could not wait to get back to school that afternoon and tease the person who had sent me that first email.
As Toni so nicely put it she was sat in the staff-room with her back to the window, the rest of the staff were chatting amongst themselves but she was quiet so she went over and said: “Have you figured it out yet?”
“Figured what out?” she replied, apparently bewildered.
“Which one it is” Toni said, trying desperately not to giggle.
“Which one is what?” She asked getting flustered.
“Which one is the Tree of Hope,” Toni responded, still trying to contain her increasing urge to laugh.
Naturally she was completely blown away by the curious set of circumstances Toni proceeded to tell her. What is even more curious is that Toni and Paul’s oldest son is presently being taught by the very person who sent me the email.
I was also delighted to discover that one of my favorite childhood faculty members, Mrs. Miles, also recalls that fateful day almost thirty years ago, and with amazing clarity. Apparently she recalls a tree was also planted in memory of one of the school faculty who had recently succumbed to cancer.
The final icing on the cake came at the end of the email, as the teacher asked my permission to share my little true story, word for word to the entire class assembly. You can imagine what my response was, a resounding yes!
It is wonderful to know that my special tree is going to be acknowledged by so many kids. Just remember when you are having a mundane and ordinary day that you never can suspect when something extraordinary may suddenly happen, it is just one of the many, many wonders of the universe.
©Copyright 2007 by Paul S. Gifford